I began the interview as I began all the others that had come before, with myself sitting comfortably in my favorite over-stuffed chair in my lodgings at 221B Baker Street. I surveyed my notes on the current prospect with keen interest but with some trepidation.
The current need was becoming an all too frequent problem and one that I was considering how to address in a definitive way in the near future. It had become clear to me, of late, there had to be some more permanent solution to the recurring situation but now I had the immediate issue of the need for an immediate replacement so called out, “I’m ready, Mrs. Hudson, please do send the gentleman up.”
The fellow that came up the stairs to the sitting room seemed to be exactly as my informants had stated, for he was the very image we were looking for; a tall, straight man with a high intelligent-looking forehead, a handsome nose and piercing blue eyes.
I could easily see him, when in his cups at the local pub, putting on a deerstalker cap and boasting he was the twin brother of the world’s greatest consulting detective. Exactly as my informants had written me.
“Mister Collins?” I said, rising to extend a hand to him “I am Doctor John Watson.”
The hand that grasped mine was long-fingered but the grip was weak, with unmanicured fingernails. The palms displayed no calluses of any manual work, which was also in line with my research on him. His jacket cuff was frayed and attempts had been made to disguise the threadbare state of the elbows with leather patches rather haphazardly attached. In every way he was the image of an itinerant actor from the provinces which made him perfect for our purposes.
I motioned him to take a seat opposite me and in front of the fireplace.
“It is an honor to meet you, Doctor,” Collins said. “I have, of course, read all of Mr. Holmes’s cases that you have published.”
“I am flattered, sir,” I said with a nod of my head. “It is my joy to chronicle his adventures and always gratifying to know they are appreciated.”
“When I got your letter, Doctor, I was a bit stunned, I must say,” he continued. He eyed the whole of the room with a bit of awe I had seen in many others who came into the residence. I could see him reconciling it with my detailed descriptions in the various cases I had chronicled and felt some little pride in that, I must admit.
“You did not tell anyone of the note?” I asked.
“Of course not,” he said. “Your note said it was in strictest confidence, a matter of life and death, you said.”
“Just so,” I agreed. “And I appreciate your discretion on the matter so far.” I could see his interest was at the threshold and this pleased me and boded well for the purpose of the interview.
“Will I get to meet Mister Holmes?” He asked as his eyes lingered on the slipper that hung from the mantle with the tobacco in it and the papers pinned to the mantel with a knife. Such the wide-eyed enthusiasm as I saw in so many others when speaking about the detective had bothered me at first but, as time had gone on (and my precautions had proven wise) I recognized such statements for what they were, tribute to my planning.
“No, I am afraid you shall not have that opportunity, Mister Collins. Which speaks to why we are having this meeting; my good friend is on an extended assignment that some forces may not know about. That is why I have contacted you.” I leaned in to emphasize the confidentiality of our conversation. In doing so I could see the slight cloudiness in the eyes and a certain nervousness in his hands that confirmed my conclusion that he was a user of cocaine. “Your background as an actor and superficial resemblance to Mister Holmes would serve us—and I might say—your nation, by impersonating Mister Holmes in his absence.”
I saw him start at the suggestion and he sat back with an exhalation of breath as if from a physical blow. I waited a moment for him to gather his wits then continued, “His enemies who, as you might surmise are numerous, must not know of any such impersonation; thus your discretion is invaluable and absolutely necessary for the deception to succeed.”
“Doctor Watson,” he stammered, “I am overwhelmed, I just don’t know what to say to such a bold proposition.” Once more his eyes lit upon the mantel and the pipe rack there, focusing his eyes as if he were visualizing The Great Detective himself smoking with it.